Photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten dives into the distressing stories of feral children, bringing shocking truths and unfathomable experiences to life.
When we talk about feral children, most people think they only exist in myths or Disney’s Tarzan. Although they are rare, feral children are, in fact, real. A feral child essentially is a child lost or neglected in the wild (on forced to live in captivity), growing up in isolation from human contact, and being raised by animals.
From Cambodia to Russia to Mexico, stories of feral children often involve tales of abandonment, abuse, and poverty. Far from hanging out with singing animals and swinging on vines, life in the jungle is isolated and brutal. These children are forced to deal with harsh environments, and over time they learn to adopt animals’ traits as the mode of survival. It has been documented that wild children who were rescued at a very young age, before becoming feral, have trouble developing the ability to speak or adjust to normal life. In some other cases, however, they were not able to learn human skills at all. They preferred to continue to walk on all fours, climb trees, eat raw fish, and so on.
A seasoned fine art photographer, Julia Fullerton-Batten, decided to immerse herself into the world of feral children. Although her initial reactions toward the first story of a feral child she came across were “appalled” and “intrigued”, she was soon inspired to investigate the subject further and decided to tell shocking stories through photography.
“As a mother of two young boys, I was appalled and intrigued in turn when I first learned about feral children. My initial reaction was to think how parents could either neglect or lose their child. My maternal instinct goes into overdrive when I consider these young people experiencing their lives alone or in the company of wild animals. Then I consider and admire the fortitude they must have shown to survive such isolation and extreme circumstances. In any of the circumstances that I have read about, it completely overwhelms the boundaries of my comprehension. “
“However, I have risen to the challenge of trying to capture my thoughts photographically about the isolation under which these youngsters found themselves, wondering at the same time if those living in the companionship of wild animals were perhaps better off than those whose young lives were spent with no companionship at all.”
Julia chose 15 cases of feral children to portray. These range from the story of the wild boy of Aveyron at the end of 18th century to the chicken boy in Fiji in 1978 to the jungle girl in Cambodia in 2007. Her photos powerfully captured the distressing living experience of each feral child, bringing the shocking stories to life.
“My idea was not to replicate the exact scenes but to interpret and duplicate the feelings and actions of each feral child living their experience. Some spent most of their time indoors, even in close proximity to or inside human habitation. Yet others spent the duration of their feral life outside, exposed to the elements, depending on their own ability and that of their wild companions for shelter and food and water, not to mention constantly having to avoid danger and health problems.”
Here are some of the photographs from the series along with the written statements by Julia:
The Leopard Boy, India, 1912
The boy child was two years old when he was taken by a leopardess in 1912. Three years later a hunter killed the leopardess and found three cubs, one of which was the now five year old boy. He was returned to his family in the small village in India.
When first caught he would only squat and ran on all fours as fast as an adult man could do upright. His knees were covered with hard callouses, his toes were bent upright almost at right angles to his instep, and his palms, toe- and thumb-pads were covered with a tough, horny skin. He bit and fought with everyone who approached him, and caught and ate the village fowl raw. He could not speak, uttering only grunts and growls.
Later he had learned to speak and walked more upright. Sadly he became gradually blind from cataracts. However, this was not caused by his experiences in the jungle but was an illness common in the family.
Ivan Mishukov, Russia, 1998
Ivan was abused by his family and ran away when only 4 years old. He lived on the streets begging. He developed a relationship with a pack of wild dogs and shared the food he begged with the dogs. The dogs grew to trust him and eventually he became something of a pack leader. He lived for two years in this way, but he was finally caught and placed in a children’s home. Ivan benefited from his existing language skills that he maintained through begging. This and the fact that he was feral for only a reasonably short time aided his recovery. He now lives a normal life.
Marie Angelique Memmie Le Blanc (The Wild Girl of Champagne), France, 1731
Apart from her childhood, Memmie’s story from the 18th century is surprisingly well-documented. For ten years, she walked thousands of miles alone through the forests of France. She ate birds, frogs and fish, leaves, branches and roots. Armed with a club, she fought off wild animals, especially wolves.She was captured, aged 19, black-skinned, hairy and with claws.
When Memmie knelt down to drink water she made repeated sideways glances, the result of being in a state of constant alertness. She couldn’t speak but communicated only with shrieks and squeaks. She skinned rabbits and birds and ate them raw. For years she did not eat cooked food. Her thumbs were malformed as she used them to dig out roots and swing from tree to tree like a monkey. In 1737, the Queen of Poland, mother to the French queen, and on a journey to France, took Memmie hunting with her, where she still ran fast enough to catch and kill rabbits.
Memmie’s recovery from her decade-long experiences in the wild was remarkable. She had a series of rich patrons, learned to read, write and speak French fluently. In 1747 she became a nun for a while but was hit by a falling window and her patron died soon thereafter. She became ill and destitute but again found a rich patron. In 1755 a Madam Hecquet published her biography. Memmie died financially well-off rich in Paris in 1775, aged 63.
Sujit Kumar (The Chicken Boy), Fiji, 1978
Sujit exhibited dysfunctional behavior as a child. His parents locked him in a chicken coop. His mother committed suicide and his father was murdered. His grandfather took responsibility for him but still kept him confined in the chicken coop. He was eight years old when he was found in the middle of a road, clucking, and flapping. He pecked at his food, crouched on a chair as if roosting, and would make rapid clicking noises with his tongue. His fingers were turned inward.
He was taken to an old people’s home by care workers, but there, because he was so aggressive, he was tied with bed sheets to his bed for over 20 years. Now he is over 30 years old and is cared for by Elizabeth Clayton, who rescued him from the home.
Prava (The Bird Boy), Russia, 2008
Prava, a seven-year-old boy, was found in a tiny, two-bedroom apartment, living with his 31-year old mother – but he was confined in a room filled with bird cages, containing dozens of his mother’s pet birds, bird feed, and droppings. She treated her son as another pet. He was never physically harmed, she neither beat him nor left him without food, but she never spoke to him. His only communication was with the birds. He could not speak but chirped. When he wasn’t understood he would wave his arms and hands bird-like.
Released into child care by his mother, Prava was moved to a center for psychological care where doctors are trying to rehabilitate him.
Marina Chapman, Columbia, 1959
Marina was kidnapped in 1954 at 5 years of age from a remote South American village and left by her kidnappers in the jungle. She lived with a family small, capuchin monkeys for five years before she was discovered by hunters. She ate berries, roots and bananas dropped by the monkeys; slept in holes in trees and walked on all fours, like the monkeys. One time, she got bad food poisoning. An elderly monkey led her to a pool of water and forced her to drink, she vomited and began to recover. She was befriended by the young monkeys and learned from them to climb trees and what was safe to eat. She would sit in the trees, play, and groom with them.
Marina had lost her language completely by the time she was rescued by hunters. She was sold by the hunters into a brothel, escaped and lived as a street urchin. Next, she was enslaved by a mafia-style family, before being saved by a neighbor, who sent her to Bogot to live with her daughter and son-in-law. They adopted Marina alongside their five natural children.
When Marina reached her mid-teens, she was offered a job as a housekeeper and nanny by another family member. The family with Marina moved to Bradford, Yorkshire in the UK in 1977, where she settled. She married and had children. Marina and her younger daughter, Vanessa James, co-authored a book about her feral experiences, and those afterward – The Girl With No Name.
Julia Fullerton-Batten is a worldwide acclaimed and exhibited fine-art photographer. She has won countless awards for both her commercial and fine-art work and is a Hasselblad Master. She was commissioned by The National Portrait Gallery in London to shoot portraits of leading people in the UK National Health Service. These are now held there in a permanent collection. Other images are also in the permanent collection at the Musee de l’Elysee, Lausanne, Switzerland. Julia now lives in London with her husband and two young boys.